If you didn’t see it please read / watch part 1 before reading / watching this.
Being an average performer rather than a high performer is fine, after all we work to live rather than live to work. Why should we push ourselves to anything greater than doing a good job, as long as we pay the bills, right? This seems to be the view of most of the working population, however if we spend so much time at work why don’t we want to push ourselves harder to be the best we possibly can?
Being a high performer is great; I’m sure it’s fun; okay, it might be hard work at times maintaining the standards our employer or customers come to expect but surely it must be enjoyable being the best we can. The unfortunate part of this is the journey to the top, it’s certainly not always fun, or at least not for the majority who make the attempt. The fact is, you have to want it badly enough, otherwise I doubt you’ll stick it out for long. Someone I used to work with once said to me (after completing his Master of Business Admin degree whilst working full time and being a father to two young children), ‘Don’t even contemplate studying for an MBA unless you really want it’. The same applies when we aim to be the best we can, it has to be something we really desire otherwise we are probably just setting ourselves up for failure. So why is this journey so hard. Let’s take a look. Although there are many ways we can achieve high performance, in order to keep this as brief as possible I will just touch on a few key points.
The basics of the journey require something called deliberate practice which is a term used to describe repetitive practice of certain tasks which we do regularly as part of our job. Let’s look at a golfer as an example; most average golfers go to the driving range and hit 100 balls with various clubs then might go out on the course once or twice per week if they are lucky. They rarely improve beyond taking a few shots off their game and might hit a great round every now and then, however their performance is mostly inconsistent and doesn’t improve enough for them to reach their potential. A pro golfer or someone who let’s say is a single-figure handicap golfer will practice with structure. This person will practice their swing without even hitting a ball, they will practice hitting a ball out of the rough or sand hundreds of times even though they may not be faced with that scenario very often. It’s no secret that 1000 hours of practice will bring better results than 100 hours but its what we practice and how we practice it which makes us the best we can be. Deliberate practice is designed specifically to improve performance and feedback on the results of this can be continuously available. It is highly demanding on our mental strength so as I say, be ready for it and want it!
Coaching & Mentoring
Whilst deliberate practice is very important, equally important is how we evaluate what we do, reflect on what went well and not so well. Having a manager, coach or mentor is key to this. Being coached by observation is so important in progressing our skill levels. So many managers only actually manage when something goes wrong or when there is a set weekly or monthly meeting. A mentor, team leader or coach however, will continuously observe what you do and provide advice where it is needed on what just took place. Most of us would hate this consistent level of coaching. It could be referred to as micro-management which in recruitment can be compared to a sweatshop environment. In many ways coaching is best achieved by leadership rather than management, leading by example rather than beating your staff with a KPI stick. Whether we see close contact with our mentor or coach in a positive light or not, if carried out well it’s equally as important as deliberate practice.
Deepening our knowledge
If we truly want to be the best in our field we need to acquire knowledge outside of what may be our own particular role. Let’s say you are an engineer or accountant, being the best at this function will require knowledge of your customers and suppliers, their needs and wants; also having a commercial understanding of the business you work within, ie the history, the background of the founding partners, the vision, the business plans etc. A high performer has knowledge of their whole industry so they can make educated decisions based on the complete puzzle rather than just their piece of the puzzle. Let’s look at the design of a multi-storey building. If an architect designs the building based purely on the purpose or needs of the client without taking into account the engineering or buildability of the design there will be complications and costs incurred by the client at some point. If a structural engineer designs the structure of the building without considering the cost of materials, how the contractor/builder will have to carry out the suggested method of build, or how the structure affects the mechanical services or electrical services there will be consequences down the track. Gaining knowledge of the design, build and potential lifecycle of the building is typically the information a high performer will have. This level of knowledge is usually gained over many years which is why most high performers don’t reach their potential until at least 10 years of experience.
Expert working memory
Some of us believe we need a certain IQ or what’s called a photographic memory to become an elite or even high performer below elite level. This isn’t necessarily the case, I mean I’m sure a high IQ will help with most things we apply ourselves to however that doesn’t mean a person with a lower than 130 IQ won’t be able to achieve high levels of performance. Similarly with memory, we don’t need a super-human photographic memory, all we need is a comprehensive mental model of our field of expertise. A good example of this is a computer engineer. When they look inside a PC they don’t see 1million pieces, they see various groups of pieces of which they will have comprehensive knowledge of how they work and the pieces within each group. We can call this memory by association ie relating what we see to something we understand.
If I was to show you a 13 letter word such as ‘entertainment’ for 1 second, because you can read you pretty much instantly recognise the word therefore you could say the letters in order and given a moment you could most likely recite the letters in reverse order. However, if you hadn’t learnt to read you would most likely, after being shown a 13 letter word for 1 second, only be able to recite 4-5 letters in order. This is similar for elite chess players, they have repeatedly practiced the game which provides hundreds, maybe thousands of typical formations of in-play chess pieces. When tested on this versus the average chess player, they could memorise the formations as opposed to the average player only memorising 4-8 pieces on the board every time. When both sets of players are then shown random formations which don’t fall into the in-play formations of a chess board, all players tested will memorise a similar number of pieces.
What this tells us is after years of exercising our memory in our particular field we should, if we apply our minds appropriately, form a mental model of our field. I don’t doubt that this will require you to be passionate about your field otherwise your model will become more fragmented than complete. Let’s also remember, our mental model will always be growing and/or changing as industries grow and technology advances. Therefore our knowledge base as mentioned above is critical in being able to maintain a comprehensive memory model.
So how can you apply deliberate practice to your job, in both the common and rare tasks so that you’re well prepared for battle. All of the above can be applied to sport, music, or business; in fact, to any area of your life where you desire to be your best. However, as mentioned in my first blog, in business this can be difficult for many reasons. So whether innate talent exists or not, what we should care about is that if we want to reach our full potential, we have to apply ourselves in a structured program of hard work, practice and determination to become one of the best in our field. I personally do believe innate talent exists but I refuse to allow anyone to tell me I can’t do something if it’s truly what I want. If my kids want to be the best at something, unless they physically can’t I will support their goals to the end with realistic feedback and encouragement. So our next challenge is applying the above to our occupation. Give it some thought as I’d like to hear how you think you can do this and if you are up for the challenge. My 3rd and final blog/vlog will discuss how we may apply the above to the workplace.